City prepares for the ‘Year of Kurt Vonnegut’
It’s certainly a very friendly thing they’re doing for me,” says writer Kurt Vonnegut from his home in New York City. “My goodness. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard of any other community doing such a thing.”
Thanks to the combined efforts of Mayor Bart Peterson, the public library and an array of its arts and cultural institutions, 2007 will be the “Year of Kurt Vonnegut” in Indianapolis, a 12-month celebration honoring the city’s native son, including a visit by Vonnegut in April to deliver the library’s annual Marian McFadden lecture and place a time capsule in the atrium of the new Central Library building.
Vonnegut, as the Indiana Historical Society has itself acknowledged, is a living legend, a literary master whose writings have proven to be among the most influential of the 20th century.
In an era in which writers and the written word have sometimes seemed marginalized, Vonnegut remains a phenomenon. All of his books, including such titles as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Welcome to the Monkey House and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, are in print. Although Vonnegut is often associated with the 1960s, successive generations of readers continue to discover him and to find a companion in his voice. Last year, when he came out of a self-declared retirement to publish a collection of short pieces, A Man Without a Country, the book immediately shot to first place on the New York Times best-seller list.
Anne Laker, of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, calls Vonnegut “one of the great artists to come out of the Midwest. His experiences, his generation, his voice really represent the bizarre and almost unfathomable experiences of his generation — which he has fathomed. Starting with the Depression and World War II, and seeing things through to our own time, his story is the story of the last century and it’s amazing how he has made sense of it all through his many works.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s story also provides a rich point of entry into the history of Indianapolis and, in particular, the role German-Americans have played in the city’s development. Vonnegut’s great-grandfather, Clemens, who came to the city in the early 1850s, not only established one of the city’s most successful businesses, Vonnegut Hardware, he sat on numerous boards, including the school board, where he served for 27 years. Vonnegut’s grandfather, Bernard, was reputedly the state’s first licensed architect and was responsible for designing at least 50 buildings throughout the city, including the Athenaeum, the Ayres and Block department stores and the Omni-Severin Hotel. Vonnegut’s father, also an architect, designed the iconic clock that extends from the Ayres building at the corner of Meridian and Washington streets.
And so the Year of Kurt Vonnegut will not only provide opportunities to read and discuss Vonnegut’s works through the public library’s One Book-One City program, it will also be a platform for a growing variety of programs and exhibits that will show how the Vonnegut family story connects with and illuminates the story of Indianapolis.
One Book-One City
“I think it’s overdue that this city pays respect and homage and celebrates our literary giant here in Indianapolis,” says Chris Cairo, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library’s program director, of the impending Vonnegut feast. The library, she says, had been wanting to make a Vonnegut book the focus of its One Book-One City program, the annual event encouraging citizens to read and discuss the same book, since the program was started. The IMCPL kept waiting, though, for the right opportunity. Finally, Mayor Peterson gave them a gentle push.
“It was really the mayor’s idea that the entire city celebrate Kurt Vonnegut,” Cairo allows. Nevertheless, the library was quick to see the potential for this project and eager to get involved. In the first place, the variety and availability of Vonnegut’s works provided a perfect fit for the One Book-One City format. Typically, the One Book-One City selection process involves narrowing a list of titles down to 25. A community discussion then ensues, resulting in the selection of one particular title for everyone to read.
This year the library will begin with 25 Vonnegut titles for people to choose from. These books will be featured in book discussions taking place in library branches across Indianapolis beginning Jan. 8. People, for example, can read Hocus Pocus at the Flanner House Branch, Galapagos at the Wayne Branch, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at Glendale and Timequake at Haughville. Groups will continue meeting and reading more titles until March, when the list of 25 will be narrowed to five finalists. “People might want to attend more than one of these discussions before they make their selection,” Cairo says.
On April 1, the mayor will announce the selection that the entire city will read. A copy of that book will be placed in a time capsule by Vonnegut during his visit for the McFadden lecture.
The IMCPL will host a variety of other Vonnegut-related programs throughout the year, including lectures dealing with Vonnegut’s life, the history of German-Americans and German Freethinkers in Indianapolis, concerts by, among others, the Indianapolis Maennerchor, the Indianapolis Liederkranz and the Saenger-Chor, an athletic demonstration by the Fort Wayne Turners and films about Vonnegut.
In addition to its own programming, the IMCPL, working with the Cultural Development Commission, has also served as coordinator and hub for a wealth of other programs to be presented by arts and cultural institutions ranging from Historic Landmarks to the League of Professional Theaters.
“I think it’s great that everyone can work together and still be true to their own missions,” says the Cultural Development Commission’s Jenny Guimont of the collaboration forming for the Year of Vonnegut. “He, as a creative individual, is a natural subject that applies to all kinds of things.”
Author Nelson Price has built a career around his fascination with state and local history and the people that have contributed to the building of his hometown, Indianapolis. Price has researched the Vonnegut family tree and lectures on the relationship between Kurt Vonnegut and the city where he grew up. He will give a presentation at the Glendale Branch library on Sunday, Jan. 7 at 2 p.m.
“His ancestry parallels the history of the city and Kurt himself has had what I call a love/hate relationship with Indianapolis,” Price says. “He’s had his ups and downs here. So we learn about ourselves from studying his work and his life.”
This story begins with the arrival here in 1850 of Clemens Vonnegut. Vonnegut was in the silk ribbon business; he was 27 years old. At that time, the population of Indianapolis was 8,000 — and growing rapidly. Clemens “came and saw all this opportunity,” Price says. He soon found a partner named Vollmer and they started a hardware business. “By the 1960s it was the oldest family retail business in the city,” Price says. Clemens was a physical fitness advocate who was occasionally seen chinning himself on tree branches when the spirit moved him. He was also involved in the Maennerchor and supported German language instruction in the public schools, where he became one of the longest serving board members.
Clemens had four sons, one of which, Bernard, became an architect. Bernard, in turn, was father to Kurt Vonnegut Sr., also an architect, and a co-founder of the Children’s Museum. Kurt Sr. had three children of his own: Bernard, Alice and Kurt Jr. Their handprints can still be found in the cement of the driveway to the house they lived in on the 4400 block of North Illinois Street. The Vonnegut family was at the center of the city’s cultural life until the Great Depression. Kurt Sr.’s architectural practice suffered for lack of business. “Nothing,” Price says, “was being built.
“It was a shattering experience for [Kurt Jr.’s] mother,” Price says. Kurt, who was 9, was taken out of Orchard School and enrolled in School 43. “Ironically, [Kurt] was thriving. He much preferred School 43, the public school, to Orchard. Enjoyed his classmates and everything else.”
Vonnegut went on to attend Shortridge High School, where he was editor of The Echo, the first daily high school newspaper in the country. “He’s very loyal to a lot of his Shortridge classmates,” Price says.
Vonnegut left Indianapolis to go to Cornell University in New York. World War II broke out and he joined the Army. In 1944, as he was about to be shipped to Europe, Vonnegut’s mother committed suicide. Before that year was over, Vonnegut found himself in the Battle of the Bulge, where he would be taken prisoner and sent to Dresden. The Allied bombing of Dresden, where 135,000 people were killed, would become the flashpoint for Vonnegut’s most celebrated book, Slaughterhouse Five.
“I’m fascinated with city history. I grew up a fifth generation Hoosier,” Price says. “Studying Kurt’s life, I’ve learned so much about this city and how we’ve evolved. I hope people come away with a deeper sense of Indianapolis, as well as some insights into the human condition from studying his books and his life, given everything that’s happened to him.”
They built this city
“Kurt Vonnegut”, says Kelly Siegert of Historic Landmarks, “is related to almost every important German-American who was in this city.” One hundred years ago, almost 70 percent of the community had German heritage.
Siegert has been researching the Vonnegut family’s contribution to Indianapolis in preparation for at least two tours that Historic Landmarks will offer during the Year of Vonnegut. These tours will, in April and September, introduce people to sites associated with Vonnegut family history, the city’s German-American heritage and, especially, to the family’s architectural legacy.
“The Vonneguts were involved in some of what I would call the landmark buildings that we have here in Indianapolis,” Siegert says, adding that the connections extend beyond the buildings themselves. The Vonneguts were related through marriage to the Schnull family, and a Schnull is regarded today to be the father of what we now know as the Wholesale District.
“All of these relatives that we’ve been able to trace through [Kurt Vonnegut] were very involved in commerce in the city, the development of the city and were people that would have been widely known,” Siegert says, “not only in the German-American community, but in the larger community … Everything we’ve found has suggested that his family was part of this German-American aristocracy that was present in this city.”
The story of the German-American contribution to Indianapolis has been documented by Greg Mobley, archives specialist with the Ruth Lilly Special Collections and Archives at the IUPUI University Library. Shaping the Circle is a digital exhibit Mobley created to highlight the archives’ German-American holdings covering a period between 1840 and 1918. The exhibit uses photos, text and documents to focus on key points of emphasis associated with the German-American community: music, architecture, physical education and cultural conflicts and acculturation. During the Year of Vonnegut, the exhibit will be on display at the Artsgarden in Circle Centre Mall. Mobley will update the display, contextualizing it in terms of the Vonnegut family story. “I would like for people to understand that Kurt Vonnegut and his worldview was in some way shaped by the family he comes out of and, indeed, by the German-American community he came out of,” Mobley says.
The Vonneguts, Mobley says, were part of the German Freethinkers movement and members of the Indianapolis Freethinkers Society. The Freethinkers had a great deal in common with the progressive movements associated with other late 19th century societies. Freethinkers, Mobley says, tended to be anticlerical and thought religion should be based on scientific fact and not on dogma, or what Freethinkers considered superstition. “It was very much a scientifically-based philosophy and, I think, rationalism. Rationalism in government, in business and, certainly, a lot of emphasis on equality and justice,” Mobley says.
Among the holdings in IUPUI’s collection is a booklet written by Clemens Vonnegut offering a Freethinker’s view of religion and moral philosophy. “When you read that booklet, if you didn’t know better you would think it was Kurt Vonnegut Jr. writing,” Mobley says. “It’s not what you would consider typical Hoosier philosophy.” Mobley plans on putting the complete text of the booklet — in the original German and in English translation — on the Web, along with a rebuttal written by Clemens Vonnegut’s brother, a practicing Catholic living in Germany. “In one family you have these very different viewpoints.”
Mobley stresses that the part of the German-American community the Vonneguts belonged to intermingled freely with other parts of the city as a whole. “They had an obvious love for the city, and a sense of duty in promoting the city and making things better here.”
An electric connection
“He is this brilliant voice and we, as a community, have not claimed him enough,” says Janet Allen, artistic director of the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Allen is working with her colleagues in the theater community to add a performing arts dimension to the Year of Vonnegut.
“I felt revolutionized by some of his stuff as a high school senior and a college freshman,” Allen says, tracking her personal connection with Vonnegut’s art. “Things like Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat’s Cradle. Early in my adult life these works were freeing. Now, when I read things like God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, it’s hilarious and cynical and mind-expansive. When I read things like that, it’s as thrilling and exciting as any new reading experience — more so because of that electric connection from him having spent a lot of his formative years here.”
Allen has made it a practice to give people she’s working with a copy of Vonnegut’s essay, “On Being a Native Midwesterner” — a piece that was originally commissioned by NUVO and recently reprinted in the anthology Back Home. “I gave it to the entire cast of The Gentleman From Indiana,” she says.
Over at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Anne Laker is working with the professionals there to develop a program dealing with another important part of Vonnegut’s canon: his visual art. “We are hoping to honor the fact that Vonnegut has turned to visual languages in his later years and has found that a supple way of trying to make sense of his own life and life today,” Laker says.
Laker believes that Vonnegut’s work has special relevance for museums. “Vonnegut has a lot to say about museums and the democracy of art. He’s someone who’s really aware of the way the arts can be seen as elitist and he himself has worked very, very hard to keep art democratized. He begs everyone to print, draw dance or write because it makes people better human beings through the act of doing that.”
As she and her colleagues prepare for this year, Laker says, “I hope people are reminded of the way writers and artists help us tell the truth about ourselves. I feel Vonnegut is someone who’s always struggled to tell the truth and be a soothsayer in many ways. I hope people will appreciate the clarity and risk that he’s taken in his works and continues to pursue.”
Mayor Peterson on the YOV
Mayor Bart Peterson says he has read six or seven of Kurt Vonnegut’s books over the years. His favorite is Slaughterhouse Five. “I went back and read it again just a couple of years ago,” he says. The first time he read the book was when he was in high school. “It’s a tremendous book. To read it as a fully formed adult — you see things a little differently.”
Mayor Peterson says his interest in the creation of a Year of Vonnegut celebration in Indianapolis was prompted by a conversation he had with an out-of-town friend. “He said Indianapolis ought to do something to formally acknowledge that Kurt Vonnegut is one of the great writers of the 20th century; that he is from Indianapolis and mentions Indianapolis and Hoosiers in many of his books.”
A self-described lover of literature, the mayor looks forward to a project honoring the literary arts. “Too often, when we think of the arts,” he says, “we think of the visual or performing arts and literature isn’t always given its due as part of the arts pulse of a community. I like the idea of emphasizing the importance to Indianapolis and Indiana of our literary heritage as one of the key components of our arts community. We have a great literary heritage, and it’s worth celebrating. To be able to highlight Kurt Vonnegut, to be able to show the city how significant his influence has been worldwide, and to expose more people to his work is, I think, a really worthy endeavor.”
KV: I was told by my father: Be anything but an architect. He was feeling terribly sorry for himself during the Depression. I would have liked to have been an architect — and I would have been third generation.
NUVO: What was it like growing up in a place where your family was responsible for designing so much of the built environment?
KV: I thought that was life. I was spoiled. Actually, that’s what life should be. When I lectured a lot I would always say everybody needs an extended family. Almost nobody’s got one anymore, but I had one. Lots of relatives in the phone book. If I needed a job, one of them would give me a job. We would all look out after each other and come to each other’s weddings. That was nice — and I so miss it.
Everybody should have an extended family. I don’t mean to intimidate anybody, but I have a master’s degree in anthropology and one thing I learned from that is that we need extended families as much as we need vitamin C. In a way, I have an extended family with other writers. And every so often I’d get a letter from a guy who’d been in prison. He’d been in the prison system since he was 14 and said, “Now I’m 35 and they’re gonna turn me loose. What do I do?”
And the honorary president of the American Humanists Association says, “Join the church.”
Of course that accounts for a huge number of Evangelicals now. You move to a new town where you don’t know anybody and you join the church. They’ve got a swimming pool and a gym.
NUVO: Part of the celebration in your honor will bring attention to the role German-Americans played in the history of Indianapolis.
KV: The most valuable thing the German-Americans ever did for the whole world, may I say, was the Panic Bar. That’s the Vonnegut Hardware Company. It was after the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago in 1903. People panicked and got all squashed against the doors. Nobody could turn the knob. So the Vonnegut Hardware Company — my great-grandfather Clemens and some others there — invented the Panic Bar. That’s enough for any minority to do in this country, isn’t it?
One thing you must acknowledge is that the Anglo-Americans hated the Germans. The Athenaeum used to be Das Deutsches Haus, the German House. Yellow paint was splashed over the front of it. The Germans had given the same offense that the Armenians had given in Turkey, and the Ebos had given in Nigeria, and the Jews had given in Germany: They were so successful, finally the Anglos were saying, “Who the hell’s country is this?”
One thing that I regret is that my parents, who were fluent in German and could so easily have taught me, didn’t. My father told me he got a letter saying, “Don’t teach your kids that Dutch!” The hatred was really quite something — and painful in a business way, too.
NUVO: Do you know what you’ll say at the McFadden lecture?
KV: You know I’m completely in print. I’ve been allowed to say anything I ever wanted to say and I’m pretty well talked-out. I’ll try to be entertaining. This is sweet. I do love the city; I’ve never spoken ill of it.
I remember they did something about James Whitcomb Riley. I think school children pulled him in a carriage. I would certainly like that.
Remember the Panic Bar.